In 1998, an ODOT proposal to rebuild I-71 with three lanes sparked a heated county vs. county battle about the role of highway investments in draining tax base from older communities. The five-county regional transportation planning body, NOACA (the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency), finally approved a carefully-crafted compromise, agreeing that a full-depth shoulder would be added to allow for maintenance of two travel lanes at all times (i.e. during construction), but that this new pavement would not be used for daily travel.
Earlier this year, however, a state legislator slipped a provision into ODOTs budget requiring it to re-stripe the shoulder as a third lane for everyday use. Cuyahoga County and City of Cleveland officials at first cried foul, but with the need for state funding on major Cleveland projects like the Innerbelt and Lakefront Boulevard, they withdrew their opposition, allowing the change to be approved.
Despite proponents rhetoric about the need for rush hour congestion relief in the I-71 corridor, adding lanes in Medina alone will have little lasting effect. Opponents of the 1998 widening proposal noted that the real cause of backups has always been short stretches of two-lane roadway at I-480 and at the Innerbelt Metro curve. Five years later, the Innerbelt changes are finally being planned, but the state has yet to even schedule a study of the I-480 bottleneck near Hopkins Airport. ODOT has again promised to make this study a priority, but the fix will be extremely costly and many years away.
One troubling aspect of the I-71 widening was the regionalism rhetoric used by some NOACA board members. It was suggested that intra-regional disagreements could threaten Northeast Ohios national reputation for just-in-time delivery and efficient freight movement and thus impact our regional economy. But those arguments failed to acknowledge that I-71 widening will have unintended impacts on land use and the regional economy.
Highway widenings facilitate the creation of new interchanges, followed by speculative construction of duplicative office, retail and residential space. When that happens in a region without substantial population growth, the new construction simply shifts the regions tax base from one local area to another without adding overall value. We pay for the cost of the highway now and later through losses to the urban core and fertile farmland.
In order to realize true regionalism, ODOT must collaborate with other state agencies and local governments to minimize speculative land development incentives at Ohios metropolitan fringes. This job cant be left to existing regional bodies, such as NOACA, which do not have authority to create a regional development vision among hundreds of local governments governments that each have their own elected leaders and land-use authority and who are actively competing with each other for tax base.
Few would deny that truck traffic on I-71 is increasing and that a third lane will improve safety. However, the additional capacity created by that lane will eliminate barriers to new interchange construction. While perhaps unintended, it seems inevitable that this change will set off yet another round of suburban sprawl.
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